The sun rose bright in a clear sky, drying the storm-dampened streets of Tortus Bay and rousing Henry from what had become a pleasant slumber. He certainly hadn’t intended to wake up so early, but he felt energized in the light streaming onto his face through his open blinds. Thin, perhaps, and not too sure about the state of his stomach, but energized all the same.
A number of people milled about the Hell on a Shell bar that morning, quietly eating their breakfasts. Delicious scents wafted upwards and compounded in that dome-like structure to incite a ravenous hunger in Henry. In one glance he saw waffles piled with cream, pancakes covered in blueberries, plates of fat blackened sausages, and thick rashers of charred bacon. When was the last time he’d eaten something other than fries?
Jamal, standing behind the bar, motioned him into a stool. “Surprised to see you out and about so early. I like that!”
From his seat, Henry got an even better view of the veritable mountain of food being pumped out of the kitchen, as well as the harried woman bustling back and forth to produce it. “I’m as surprised as you are,” he said. “Bu I figured I’d stop down to see about settling up.” While the website for the Tortoise Shell Inn had featured a complete (if not obtrusive) survey prior to booking, it had not supported online payment.
Jamal shot him a wry smile, then wordlessly swiped a full plate from the serving window and set it in front of him.
“Thanks,” he said, because he knew better than to turn down a good thing. His mouth watered. “What do I owe you?”
“You can pay when you’re ready to leave.”
At that, the harried woman made a choking sound. “He’s asking!” she said. “He wants to pay.”
“My wife,” Jamal said, under his breath.
Henry leaned around the bartender to make eye contact with the man’s betrothed. She sported a paisley apron plastered in batter, and wore her hair pinned up in a tight bun. “How much, Mrs. Neath?”
“Diana.” She eyed him up and down. “Thirty dollars per night. Five dollars for a meal, when we have them.”
“Breakfast’s free,” Jamal said, forcefully. “Continental.”
Henry shoved half a pancake into his mouth to excuse himself from the awkward situation, but was saved regardless by the next distraction—which came in the form of a man named Clint. He plodded loudly down the stairs, the plaid from the previous night wrapped around his shoulders, looking wet in the eye and red in the cheek. Stale tobacco and even staler sweat emanated from his person, but nonetheless Jamal summoned him to the bar and served him a heaving plate of food. “I’m good for it,” Clint said, almost inaudibly.
Jamal returned a well-practiced whisper. “I know it. Pick up a fresh shirt on your way out. There’s a box near the front desk.”
The man grumbled something to that, then set himself wholly to the task of eating. Under Diana’s watchful eye, he steadily worked his way through the entire plate without once looking up, or reaching for his glass or water, and ladled one final spoonful of sweet syrup into his mouth before Henry had begun his sausages. Then he sat, for a long moment, staring down at the bar, before hauling himself onto his feet and heading off toward the hotel exit.
Outside, Tortus Bay baked under a brilliant sun. No evidence whatsoever remained of yesterday’s torrential downpour, nor did any of the people of the village appear to be showcasing any extended grieving for the recent high-profile funeral. If anything, they appeared to be in aggressively joyous spirits. Every door up and down Main Street was propped open, and knots of animatedly chatting folk formed around each entrance. It seemed an entirely social affair, and Henry wondered if anyone was honestly trying to sell, or buy, anything.
They absorbed him into their groups as he passed, with the energy and determination of a jilted relative at a family reunion. Everyone was so happy to meet him, wanted to tell him just a few things about themselves, then asked him how long he would be staying before handing him off to the next in line like a stubborn pinata. At first he tried to remember the stream of names, faces, relationships, careers, hobbies—but before long it all became a mess in his mind, and through repetition his own name began to feel awkward on his lips.
Surrounded so closely on all sides by loud and distracting figures, Henry became aware that his hand was instinctively flicking toward his back pocket every minute or so. He worked to master that impulse.
After what was certainly a world record for the slowest walking pace down two and a half standard blocks, Henry freed himself from the mob in front of a store whose sign simply read ‘SS.’ The only clue that gave it away as a cafe was the neatly lined, hand-printed menu posted in the window. Still majorly preoccupied, he made to push open the door when it swung out toward him instead, and he nearly collided with a familiar face.
Sharp jaw. Dark, bouncing hair. Niles Homer. Strange name, solid guy. Henry remembered that he ought not to know that name yet, and stopped himself at “hello.”
“Oh, hey.” He smiled, and caught Henry in a stiff handshake. “New guy, right? Niles.”
Niles smelled like the rare intersection of a patisserie and a lumberyard. “Good to meet you, Henry. I saw you down at the hotel, didn’t I?”
“That’s where I’m staying.”
“And where I’m late to arrive. Diana must be losing her mind; she hates it when I leave her to handle the breakfast rush.” He pulled a plain white business card out of his pocket, and pressed it into Henry’s palm. “I’m always rushing back and forth, so in case I don’t see you before then, that’s the address of where the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Society meets every Saturday. Oh! Don’t worry, we don’t actually do any hiking during the weekly get-togethers.”
Was this overt friendliness an affectation of small-town life, or was something else at play? Henry could only nod.
Niles had managed to negotiate his way out of the door while he spoke. “So I’ll see you there?”
“Okay. Yeah, you will.”
“Great!” He waved, leaving Henry to look down dumbly at the card in his hand. “You and I have a lot to talk about.”